Nile River

By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute

This week’s parashah gives us an opportunity to visit the Nile River. Where does it originate? How is it exploited?

Egypt, past and present, is the land of the Nile. The Nile River, a north-flowing river, is one of the longest rivers on earth (disputably the longest — vying with the Amazon), spanning approximately 4,240 miles long. The Nile crosses through all of Egypt, for about 745 miles, and serves as Egypt’s backbone and main artery. Egyptian civilization developed around the Nile from the times of the pharaohs until today.

Ye’or and Pishon

The Nile, the English name originating from the Latin, Nilus (its moniker in Talmudic and later sources), appears in the Tanach as ye’or. The ye’or makes its first official appearance in Pharaoh’s famous dream and Yosef’s interpretation. It is likely that none of Pharaoh’s interpreters arrived at Yosef’s conclusions that there would be a famine in Egypt, since it seemed so unimaginable with the Nile River providing a steady water supply. We see the ye’or again when Yocheved hides Moshe in a basket, at Moshe’s rescue, and then again during the plagues and warnings (where Moshe meets Pharaoh on the river bank).

Rashi, however, maintains that the ye’or first appears in the beginning of Bereishit (2:11), as one of the four rivers issuing from Gan Eden: “The name of the first is Pishon; it surrounds the entire land of Havilah where gold is found.” Rashi explains: “This is the Nile, the River of Egypt. Because its waters grow plentiful and rise and water the land, it is called Pishon, the name being of the same root as the verb in “u’pashu parashav — and their horsemen increased” (Chabakuk 1:8).

The Nile’s Source

The Nile Valley divides Egypt into two deserts: east, which extends to the Red Sea, and west, which is part of the Sahara Desert. Comprising 3% of Egypt, the Nile Valley is exploited for farmland. The rest of the country is desert. Some 97% of Egypt’s population live cheek-by-jowl along the banks of the Nile.

The Nile waters embark on a long journey before they reach Egypt. The Nile is fed from two major tributaries: the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile begins in Lake Victoria, from which it flows to Uganda, Sudan, and then Egypt. It provides a steady source of water, where equal amounts of water flow throughout all months of the year. The Blue Nile originates in Tana Lake, Ethiopia, and joins the White Nile near Khartoum, capital of Sudan.

When the Radbaz (Spain to Egypt, 1479–1573) needed to clarify the source of the Nile’s plentiful waters for halachic reasons, he studied Ethiopian scholarly sources and procured information from two Jews (one from Ethiopia) (Responsa, 8:140):

“Regarding the matter of this river (the Nile) … He said that it is from plentiful rain, for several reasons. One — behold, the honest gentile merchants come from the Land of Kush (=Ethiopia) … say that from the beginning of the al-Chabasha region (=Ethiopia), southwards, the rain is boundless for three or four months, and no one passes the threshold of their house due to the extensive rains. It forms large rivers and ponds, and all [of the water] runs down and drains into the Nile. It is from these [rains] they [=the Nile waters] rise and increase. They say that the time the river here grows here [in Egypt] is the rainy season there.

“I also asked the learned men there and all agreed that [this phenomenon] is due to the plethora of rain … I also consulted with their books where it is written that the reason for [the Nile’s] rise is the rains and melting of snow. It is also written in their books that several ancient kings sent messengers to investigate … where the river issues from, and they reported to them that [the Nile] originates from a mountain called Jabal al-Qatar {sic}, that is the White Mountain, and it constantly increases from the plentiful rains.”

The ancients believed that the Nile issued from the snow-capped “Mountains of the Moon” (probably the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda); indeed, some of the runoff from melted snow feeds into the Nile. This is probably what the Radbaz is referring to.

Man-made Changes

The Nile waters have been exploited, in past and present, for Egypt’s agriculture economy. Necho II (26th dynasty king in 6 BCE) began digging the forerunner of the Suez Canal (Canal of the Pharos) to prevent flooding and expand the farmland area, as well as to increase commerce. Ever since ancient times, its waters are pumped by the saqiyya (waterwheel) system.

In the 19th century, deep irrigation canals were dug to facilitate irrigation even when the Nile was low. In 1898, the Old Aswan Dam was built. With the growth of Egyptian population, there was a need to build a new, taller, and more efficient canal. The construction of the Aswan High Dam from in the 1960s was by far one of the largest-scale construction projects of the 20th century. The dam is three miles long and 120 yards above the water level. In the building of the dam, materials were used sufficient to build 17 pyramids!

The ancient Nile has gone through many changes from the times that Yosef and Moshe walked along its banks, but it remains the defining feature of Egyptian civilization.

The Plague of Blood: Undermining the Deified Nile

As the primary life source, it is no wonder that the Nile was deified. The Nile was the primary deity worshipped in ancient Egypt (the sun perhaps second). Thus, it made sense that the first major blow was the plague of blood: besides cutting off Egypt’s water supply, it undermined the Egyptian belief that the Nile was an independent, godly entity. The first plague served as a resounding proof — to both Egyptian and Hebrew — that the G-d of the Hebrews was in control.

Boaz Maos, “Parashah Eretz Yisraelit.” Translated and adapted by Rabbi Moshe Bloom.

Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email h.moshe@toraland.org.il or call 972-8-684-7325.

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